As killers go, he was not very adroit. He killed for a thrill and turned it into a game. When the game lots its thrill, he apparently quit and used his meager cache of drive-by killings to terrorize an entire metropolitan area through grandstanding letters that warned of what he could do next. Then he bid farewell to his crime spree by telling the public he would disguise his future murders to look like ordinary crimes. He exited the stage of crime and slowly transposed into mystery, leaving us to wonder if he has ever struck again or will ever strike again.
His clumsy crimes capture the popular mind more than the criminological mind. They do so for a good reason. He made the public his audience. His crimes were his resumé. He used them as his “in” to the newspapers. Because of them his letters filled with flippant and black humor about what he would do next had to be taken seriously. Together they showed he was perhaps one of the most arrogant killers. It would seem that all humor or flippancy associated with murder would be misplaced. And so indeed it is. But The Zodiac Killer’s must be contextualized here in order to highlight his arrogance. It is a fact that he is the only serial killer who ever repeatedly attempted humor and even social criticism and satire over his crimes.
In his game of death, in his tasteless taunting, in his years of keeping a city on the edge, in this The Zodiac stands unique. But there was little mystery or ingenuity to his murders. His first victims were unsuspecting teenagers at lover’s lanes. The female victim meant more to him than the male. This was seen in the evidence of his first strike on a lonely late night road outside the Bay Area city of Vallejo, California. The date was December 20, 1968. He killed the 17 year old boy point blank, probably execution style, and made the 16 year old girl run. He grouped 5 shots in her back before she dropped. He didn’t give her any sporting chance. She fell only 28 feet away from where she must have begun, a mere few seconds in terms of running time.
The Zodiac must then have calmly walked back to his car and drove off down the long dark country road to obscurity.
From the looks of it, police investigators saw nothing but a senseless, pointless crime. But so many strange things were gripping America in 1968, especially San Francisco, that no one could really be sure just what the motivation for such a brutal attack could be. The police flirted with a number of possible scenarios. Was it possible that the girl had a disgruntled secret admirer who out of jealousy or revenge shot them down? Perhaps it was a drugged maniac?
The antiestablishment movement was in full swing in December 1968. The Summer of Love was by now about a year and a half old. San Francisco had become an enormous paradox. It was the West Coast center of American culture. It stood gloriously unique from all cities in the United States and indeed the world. But, ironically, it was becoming the birthplace of flower children and hippies, the antithesis of anything sophisticated.
Since the ancient world no city but San Francisco had evolved from unique cultures and backgrounds to nevertheless form a separate and distinct culture of which all were proud and zealous to protect. It was first and foremost America’s great port in the Pacific. From it the Yankee merchant had tapped the China trade. The wealth and peoples of the orient flowed into America through the golden gates. Beyond them, the exotic islands of the Pacific lay: Micronesia and Polynesia. The egress and regress that San Francisco provided continually attracted people from all over the world and nation. By 1968 millions of Californians had parents from the staid and true Midwest. Old China was displaced by Mao. Chinatown was dominated by a fine old mixture of Cathay. North Beach was heavily Italian. The Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf, the fabulous Barbary Coast, were salty, sea faring places of every type of person and nationality. San Francisco was still a culture of old world and new, grass roots and aristocracy, intrigue and piety, mini skirts, Go-Go boots and European grandmothers with silver-blue perms. San Franciscans have and remain today separate and distinct. . . and zealous to protect their city’s heritage.
The cultural upheaval of the antiestablishment frightened and angered many across America. The generation that had fought WWII was now middle-age. The difference between them and their children was called The Generation Gap, and it became no more conspicuous than in the antiestablishment movement sweeping the nation and centered in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.
Violence was increasing in America. It was also becoming more and more pointless. The days were gone when Charlie Chan could uncover a motive of greed or passion behind the murder of an exotic dancer or flamboyant millionaire. Police psychologists were trying to understand the mind of serial killers from those who had been captured. Just what made someone so arrogant that they would go off and kill people for no known motive?
There was by July of ’69, of course, no reason to suspect a serial killer had become active. None were the wiser about who had committed the cowardly drive-by shootings last December on Lake Herman Road, but it seemed an isolated event. Then on July 4, Vallejo was once again shocked. Two more youths were gunned down at a petting spot in their car. The young 19 year old man survived, though badly wounded. The 21 year old young mother died on the way to the hospital.
It seemed similar to the murders of last December; only a higher caliber pistol had been used this time.
Then the first evidence came that a thrill killer was involved. The police received a call. It was the killer. He confessed to the shooting and to those of last December.
It wasn’t a crank call. On August 1, 1969, letters were received at three major newspapers describing things only the killer would know about the crime scenes. He signed each letter with a cross hair symbol— evocative of a gun sight. With the letters, each newspaper was given one third of a cipher to reproduce on the front page by Friday. If not, the killer threatened to go on a kill rampage.
This made the killer unique. It was a game for him. A grandstanding game. When the cipher was decoded a week later by a Salinas, California, couple, it revealed a simple-Simon sentence structure. With contradictory reasoning, the killer first rejoiced in killing people, then he invoked some arcane cult concepts that those whom he had killed would be his slaves in his afterlife. Purely bizarre.
Despite the claims of the cipher, The Cipher Slayer, as he first became known, hadn’t lived up to any of them. He called man the most dangerous animal off all, and said how he was thrilled to kill people. Yet he was hardly the brave white hunter. His victims had been unsuspecting teenyboppers at petting spots— hardly dangerous game. He walked up and merely shot them— not very sporting. He didn’t do a great job on July 4 because one of the victims survived. He obviously wasn’t the great white hunter in the bush. Then he followed with a non sequitur. These victims would be his slaves. He must have wanted teenyboppers for slaves.
The cipher contents therefore seem to strike one more as filler— something to give body to a cipher, but the killer’s intent probably was merely to taunt the police with a cryptogram. When it was decoded, the anticipation of what macabre mystery it might hold ended. The police and public had nothing but a weird “me-Tarzan, you-Jane” message.
But there was no doubt this guy was a killer. The substance of his attacks spoke plainly: He was merely a nighttime thrill killer preying upon the unsuspecting at lover’s lanes— the antithesis in substance to the drivel of his cipher.
Nevertheless, he would show himself an astute game player. He was a hunter of victims, this is true. But he also made himself the game by provoking the police to hunt him. He wasn’t a careless gun happy crank. He was organizing his own twisted game of kill and seek. His cipher and his threat to the newspapers gave the game an audience. He brought the entire Bay Area into the play in a way that would make him the star and number one villain in their mind.
On August 7, 1969, he sent his next letter. It was to the Vallejo Times-Herald. He announced himself appropriately as both player, rule maker and master controller:
This is the Zodiac Speaking
This became his name now. He was The Zodiac. He was the master controller.
The game had indeed begun. But it took unexpected turns. He struck again on November 27, 1969. This time it was at Lake Berryessa in the northeast part of Napa County. It was once again the weekend. The victims were once again young college students, unarmed and ill-prepared to defend themselves. He tied them up and knifed them. They constituted his next move in the game. He scribbled on their parked car door that he had done it. He put the date down sequentially after the dates on which he had struck before.
But the evidence here speaks volumes, and often puzzling volumes. He messed up again. He hadn’t killed either couple despite his belief that he had. They got loose and were able to get help. Despite the cult concept of slave gathering, he had shown a decided vengefulness against the female. He had stabbed the male 6 times, the female about 20. Sadly, the female victim would die in the hospital a day and a half later. The male, Bryan Hartnell, would survive. It is from his testimony that we know The Zodiac had dressed in a strange, cult-like getup. It was a black square hood, sewn rather well around what seemed a paper grocery bag. Eye holes were cut into it. The killer had clipped on shades over the eye holes. The hood had a bib. It extended over the shoulders almost down to his waist. On the center of the bib was The Zodiac’s cross hair symbol in white.
What to make of this? Obviously it meant something to our man. We can deduce many functional elements to it. For one, such as why the black cloth hood was sewn to conform to the paper bag underneath. This would provide stability to the hood. The dark glasses clipped on would also help the cloth and bag stay together and not allow it to slip and move and obscure The Zodiac’s line of sight. This suggests The Zodiac intended a daytime killing at close quarters. In such circumstances he could not afford to risk his line of sight being obscured. True, true. All true and logical deductions. But they are rather beside the point. The victims weren’t meant to survive. We were never to know that The Zodiac wore such an elaborate garb. Obviously, once again, it had some meaning purely for him. He did not wear it solely to hide his face. For that purpose a ski mask could do just as well.
Therefore, what was his game? All that stuff about collecting slaves seems like so much tripe. But now why this elaborate outfit? Why does a drive-by shooter turn into a hooded occult wraith? Why go to this trouble to perform before victims he plans to silence quickly with a knife?
We must also ask, why a daytime killing? All his previous attacks had been at night. Perhaps Lake Berryessa was important. No one is out there at night. Perhaps the lake was so important that he had to shift his MO and strike during the day.
Adding this to his previous signatures makes The Zodiac quite a convoluted killer. He changed MO more than once. Was he just a thrill killer or was he involved in something more?
Due to the testimony of the survivor, questions must naturally arise on our part. The Zodiac clearly had them under the control of a 9 mm pistol. He could have merely blown them away. But he insisted on tying them up under the guise of robbing them. Then he told them he was going to stab them. The Zodiac intended all along to kill them by knife. He went out of his way not just to kill but to kill them in a certain way.
Yet this too reveals The Zodiac’s non sequitur mind. Who would don such an elaborate hood, which must have taken hours to design and sew together, and then use such an offhand, flimsy and illogical excuse as saying he’s going to rob the couple? It was just like the rot of his cipher: he kills because he enjoys it for the thrill of the hunt, then he’s doing it so he can have slaves in the afterlife.
There is no question that The Zodiac thought he had killed these two people. He had calmly walked back up to the road and wrote on the student’s car door “By Knife” and signed it with his now-familiar cross hairs or Zodiac symbol.
He then drove to Napa and called the police from a nearby phone booth. He told them what he had done. He reported a “double murder” at the lake.
But he had proven a stumblebum again. He hadn’t killed either by this time. The Zodiac was really a clumsy, unsophisticated assailant. But he was an unrelenting gamester of death.
His next strike was soon to happen. On October 11, 1969, again on the weekend, he had made his way into the center of the Bay Area itself— San Francisco. He had a cab driver take him to a prearranged cross street: Washington and Maple. Then they went one block further to Washington and Cherry near The Presidio, San Francisco’s gorgeous peninsula fort and home of the 6th Army.
The young male driver, only 29 years old, was only a means to an end. The Zodiac must have looked like any fare until he put the barrel of his 9mm up to the right temple of the cab driver and squeezed the trigger.
Like the other police jurisdictions, SFPD was none the wiser here either. What evidence could there possibly be from a cabbie killing? The cabbie’s wallet was gone. It seemed to be a cab robbery gone bad. But there was something strange. A large piece of the driver’s bloody shirt had been torn away and taken. The cab keys were also missing. There was no reason for this.
It was a token in the game. A bloodied piece of the driver’s shirt was mailed to the San Francisco Chronicle. It was from The Zodiac. The croupier of crime announced himself again:
This is the Zodiac Speaking
What a strange sequence of crimes. Any cheap gunsel could have done the cabbie killing. This crime was the antithesis of the Lake Berryessa murder. Not only was it totally the opposite in signature, The Zodiac looked completely bland. We know this because he was fairly well-observed. First it was by some youths across the street from where he shot the cab driver. Then it was by a police officer on the cross street. An impressive composite was drawn by the police artist. The Zodiac appeared to be a middle-aged man fairly conservatively groomed. He had a crew cut of blondish to reddish hair. He was close to 6 foot tall and stoutish. He wore thick-rimmed glasses. He wore a wind breaker and brown pants— quite drab really. This was the hooded showoff without his costume.
After this The Zodiac’s letters became more threatening. He promised to go after school buses with a high power rifle and shoot out the tires and pick each kid off as they came tumbling out. The Bay Area burst into fear. The name The Zodiac reached around the country and the world. He held a city in terror with bomb threats. He had his own little humorous way of presenting his threats and describing how to make bombs with fertilizer, ammonia and gravel. “Light the shit on fire and it will ventilate everything.” Five people were in the ground and two recovering in the hospitals in order to give The Zodiac his platform to flippantly stalk and terrorize an entire metropolitan area. But it was all taunting and nothing else. He later wrote “Anybody who thinks I’d attack a bus that way deserves holes in their head.”
Then more coded message came in that promised to tell who he was and what he intended to do. But these could not be decoded. A message and a map came in speaking of “radians” and giving mathematics to discover where a bomb was hidden. The symbol of The Zodiac— the cross hairs and circle— was to be put over Mount Diablo, the great towering mountain that overlooks the San Francisco Bay Area. This was his central point. He mated his symbol with the looming mountain named for the devil and via this metaphorical incarnation dealt out his macabre game and treasure hunt over San Francisco.
Yet although he maintained his elevated chair as the dealer in the gruesome game he invented, he never seems to have struck again. He claimed he would disguise his killings to look like ordinary murders or accidents. But his clumsy killings show he really wasn’t good enough to bring that off. His letters, tasteless and morbid, grew fewer. He claimed many victims per his warning, but in a couple of specific cases of murder or mayhem his claims were patently impossible. Yet in this stage of his S&M he didn’t have to lift a bloody finger to remain public enemy No. 1 or to remain the villain of choice when a murder remained unsolved.
Some have tried to blame him for many unsolved murders thereafter, but this obscures the true conundrum. He seems to have stopped. Either he lost the thrill or the game got too risky after he was seen close up. After a few years he effectively faded away. Yet it was always possible, of course, that he could return. San Francisco and the Bay Area never forgot.
What happened to him? Who was The Zodiac Killer? He started a game he never completed. He left us cipher messages we still try to decode. His killings were not numerous or clever, but he made himself almost immortal with his letters, games and cryptograms. Like a terrible ghoul he knew to shed himself of the body of his crimes and remain living only in spirit. He has yet to be exorcised. We still wonder if he is dead or alive.
But who was The Zodiac? He is frozen in time from a sketch. He forever remains a 1969 face. He is the antithesis of what worried society at the time. He was neither a long-haired hippie or suit wearing Mafioso. He has a conservative crew cut and glasses most any father of the time wore. Is this him or a disguise? One thing he could not disguise: he had a lifeless face and narrow eyes.
The Zodiac’s crime spree has been chronicled, but it is now time to investigate it closely to see if there is any small clue, if some mistake was made, that can help reveal who this gamester of death was. There is no question he got away with his game despite the clumsy staging of his crimes. Even if he is captured now, he must be in his 70s or even 80s. He would never come to execution. He would be an old criminal, possibly fawned over in the jail by lesser thugs. But one thing exposing Zodiac will do: it will end the game. It will vanquish him from his dealer’s position. And this will exorcise him. This will kill him to history. When mystery is vanquished, it dies. When the last mystery is unraveled here, The Zodiac’s ghost will leave the Bay Area for good.
Note: to maintain the flow of the narrative, I report some things according to the popular renditions of The Zodiac case. Personally, I do not believe that he killed the cab driver at Washington and Cherry, but rather at Washington and Maple. He then took hold of the wheel and drove on to the next cross street. It is so silent at Lake Berryessa, that he would not have used the pistol. A gun shot would be heard for miles. He no doubt knew this. This too speaks for a premeditated attack with knife, or that Lake Berryessa as a location was somehow very important, and he knew a gun could not safely be used. All this will be dealt with in detail in the web pages devoted to the actual crime scenes.